For the fourth year in the row, the Fire This Time Festival has brought arresting new work by emerging and established black playwrights to the New York stage. The festival's mission is to provide space for audiences to hear the voices of playwrights of African, African American or other African Diaspora descent; beyond that idea there's no theme, no gimmick, no unifying concept. The result is a program that's diverse, engaging, and extremely well mounted; a showcase for fine actors and directors in addition to the seven writers who are the evening's raison d'etre.
Interestingly, three of the seven pieces in this year's 10-Minute Play Festival are excerpts from longer works; as you might expect, these feel both weightier and less complete than their four companions, which we are seeing in their entirety. But the excerpts absolutely leave us wanting more, eager to find out what comes before and after what we see here. Cynthia G. Robinson's Nightfall, directed by Cezar Williams, takes us to a village in Sudan, where Kofi and his pregnant wife Josiane are preparing for a peaceful night after finally getting their baby to sleep. But they are interrupted by the arrival of Tahir and Chad, a pair of mercenaries who threaten everything that this couple holds dear. Robinson's writing is searing and involving, well-performed by Georgia Southern, Neil Dawson, Leopold Lowe, and Clinton Lowe.
Dennis A. Allen II's Within Untainted Wombs looks to be a fascinating piece from the portion we're tantalized with. It imagines a higher-tech version of a sonogram that enables expectant mothers to actually see and converse with their unborn children. But what this particular mother experiences with her baby is not at all what she was hoping for. Directed by Christopher Burris, this vignette features remarkable (uncredited) lighting design to evoke the fetus in the womb. Lynnette R. Freeman as the mother, W. Tre Davis as the baby, and DeSean Stokes as the father do fine work; Lori E. Parquet strikes the right note as the doctor who may or may not be doing no harm by embracing this new invention.
The part we see of Always, by Danielle T. Davenport, takes place just after a reading of Erica's brand new novel at a New York City bookstore. Malik, a long-ago lover whom she hasn't seen in years, turns up unexpectedly; their relationship seems to be at the center of Erica's novel. Their conversation about love, memory, and appropriation—among other topics—is intriguing enough to make me want to see the rest of Davenport's play. Chandra Thomas and Peyton Coles play the pair, directed by Awoye Timpo.
The four true 10-minute plays on the bill are lighter in tone, but only one of them is what I'd call an outright comedy. This is Eric Lockley's The Sad, Secret (Sex) Life of Steve Urkel, which features Larry Powell doing a mean Jaleel White as the beloved nerd from Family Matters, and Toccara Cash as Urkel's perpetual crush Laura Winslow. (Jonathan McCrory directs.) The play starts from the premise "what would happen if Urkel created a love potion for Laura that made her crazy for him?" and takes off from there. It's a lot of fun.
Favored Nations, by J. Holtham, takes place in a lawyer's office, where Polly is about to reveal the contents of a father's will to his two estranged sons, Punch and Parry. Punch is a celebrated author, of whom Polly is an unabashed fan. But the meeting holds surprises for all concerned. Under Nicole A. Watson's sharp direction, Flor De Liz Perez, Bjorn DuPaty, and Shawn Randall do expert work.
Tracy Conyer Lee's Poor Posturing, which is directed by the festival's associate producer, Kevin R. Free, depicts a surprising confrontation involving a white college professor, her African American colleague, and an African American student who she believes needs counseling. Trouble is, the African American professor is pretty sure that said counseling amounts to racial harassment. Lee keeps things off-kilter and often hilarious as she explores attitudes in "post-racial" American academia. The cast includes Sara Thigpen, Lisa Rosetta Strum, and Chinaza Uche.
Orchids and Polka Dots is in some ways the most surprising play in an evening that trades in surprise. Nathan Yungerberg's script unfolds in a doctor's office in what I took to be pre-Civil Rights America, where Dr. Gentry is testing the effects of a new medication on a black woman, Mrs. Jordan. The effects are remarkable—transformative, even, for doctor and subject. Kristoffer Tonning is solid and strait-laced as the young, buttoned-up doctor while McKenzie Frye gives a memorable, soulful performance as Mrs. Jordan. Nicco Annan directs.
The Fire This Time 10-Minute Play Festival is an entertaining and intriguing couple of hours of theater, and more importantly, an introduction to a host of new voices that we want to hear more of in the NYC indie community.